• Plant-based publishing. (Lee Tran Lam)Source: Lee Tran Lam
So, are these publications disguising the fact they’re vegan and vegetarian?
Lee Tran Lam

5 Mar 2018 - 6:56 AM  UPDATED 5 Mar 2018 - 7:05 AM

You may have noticed an explosion in vegetarian and vegan cookbooks in the last few years. The shelves of your favourite bookstore might resemble a market garden – even Brussels sprouts have overcome decades of bad PR (and common usage as a child-punishing strategy) to become the star of glossy recipe pages.

People aren’t just eating their greens, they’re buying related cookbooks as proof. There’s been steady growth for meat-free titles for a while now, says Ben Hunter, merchandiser for online bookstore, Booktopia. “Our book sales in this category have grown by 20 per cent in the last 12 months.”

Helene Byfield, who has been buying cookbooks for Sydney’s Kinokuniya for over a decade, has noticed this trend as well. “A quarter of the books in our top 50 bestselling cookbooks last year were vegetarian or vegan, and the space we allocate for this category in the store has expanded in recent years.”

But when you scan the titles of the big-time sellers – Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty (and Plenty More), Hetty McKinnon's Community and Neighbourhood books, releases by the Thug Kitchen and Green Kitchen Stories blogs, for instance – there’s something you might register. In fact, you’ll observe it among other vegetarian and vegan releases, too – My New Roots, The French Market Cookbook, Love and Lemons, The Forest Feast, Near & Far, My Darling Lemon Thyme, Power Vegetables, The First Mess Cookbook.

If you haven’t seen a pattern – well, let’s cue a flashback. When I first started buying cookbooks in the 1990s, vegetarian cookbooks were very upfront about their vego status. In fact, if you browse my collection from that era and beyond, they all had very straight-to-the-point titles (Vegetarian Pasta, World Vegetarian, Thai Vegetarian Cooking – they all basically read like unimaginative Google search terms). The only books that veered from this approach were titles named after vegetarian restaurants (like the Moosewood cookbooks, created by the much-loved American institution that launched in 1974). But nowadays – from Plenty and beyond – vego cookbooks seem to have these evocative, less direct titles. Are they trying to disguise the fact that they’re actually vegetarian?

Note Love and Lemons, for instance – a likeable cookbook that’s definitely vego, but only hints at this by its cute coverline (“An Apple-to-Zucchini Celebration of Impromptu Cooking”) and the OG blog describes itself online as a “Healthy, Seasonal, Whole Food Recipes Blog”. Plenty doesn’t even mention the fact it’s vegetarian on the front cover – nor do other titles, like Near & Far by popular vego blogger Heidi Swanson.

“I don’t know that [this] type of book is trying to hide the fact it is meat-free, it is just that the author has enough general appeal to interest a broader audience,” says Byfield.

Booktopia’s Ben Hunter agrees: “The followings of plant-based cooking blogs like Oh She Glows and Green Kitchen Stories have been huge for a long time.” Their book releases are a natural outcome of their mega-popularity. He also notices that the trend for meat-free books cuts across all demographics: ranging “from low-cost, generic titles right up to lavishly produced books from the world's best publishing houses”.

“I don’t know that [this] type of book is trying to hide the fact it is meat-free, it is just that the author has enough general appeal to interest a broader audience."

At Kinokuniya, where Cornersmith’s Salads and Pickles cookbook “was our bestselling cookbook title last Christmas”, Byfield says vegetarian releases are sold, displayed and marketed in contrasting ways – even if they’re all essentially meat-free publications. Take two bestsellers, for example: Yottam Ottolenghi’s Plenty and Hetty McKinnon’s Community and Neighbourhood cookbooks.

“We keep Ottolenghi in our ‘Professional Cooking’ section (where famous/celebrity chefs live) and keep Hetty’s books in ‘Australian Cooking’, because she is local. We find that people do not necessarily notice that these books are vego, but pick them up due to review coverage, design and ‘staff shelf-talkers’ (review cards slipped under the book).”

“We have a separate section for vegetarian books and a sub-section for vegan books. These books do well for us in general, but they will generally have some kind of introduction about the benefits of vegetarian/vegan lifestyle, whereas the first type of book will be more about the food,” she adds.

It’s an approach that McKinnon agrees with. Even though she’s been a proud vegetarian “for over half my life”, she recognises that the term might scare people off, and she personally steers away from restaurants or books that are “too loud” about their vegetarian status.

“For me, 'vegetarian' shouldn't be a label or an overwhelming assertion. It is a lifestyle choice – which doesn't mean we can't, too, have beautiful, rich, hearty meals that are full of meaning, intention and flavour, just like non-vegetarian food.”

“I don't like to hit people over the head with the word 'vegetarian'. The truth is, I do want to encourage people … to feel more confident cooking a meal that doesn't have meat. And I think the best way to do this is to show people how to cook more creatively and deliciously with vegetables,” she says. “So I start from the standpoint of 'HAVE' rather than 'HAVE NOT'. My food is about being inclusive and sharing … Like it or not, the word 'vegetarian' carries certain connotations which are not necessarily inclusive.”

This approach has affected how people have discovered her work.

“From the beginning, Community (and then Neighbourhood) have never been marketed as 'vegetarian' books. They do not sit on the 'vegetarian' shelf in bookstores. This was something I raised early on with [my publisher] Plum, but they were on board before I even completed my sentence! They absolutely understood  … It's just a plus that the food is veggie!”

And the strategy has worked – not only have her books landed on many bookshelves and kitchen benches (Community alone has sold more than 44,000 copies), but McKinnon has received correspondence from a wide demographic of readers: from “tales about husbands agreeing to eat salads for dinner the first time (and husbands loving cooking broccoli on the barbecue)” to kids who’ve been inspired to eat from their tiny urban garden (even if they might occasionally supplement McKinnon’s vegie-focused dishes with fish or chicken).

“From the beginning, Community (and then Neighbourhood) have never been marketed as 'vegetarian' books. They do not sit on the 'vegetarian' shelf in bookstores. This was something I raised early on with [my publisher] Plum, but they were on board before I even completed my sentence!"

So, by choosing not to hammer home the fact her recipes are meat-free, McKinnon has opened up her veg-centric food to a larger audience.

“We have sold Ottolenghi’s books and Hetty’s books to people who don’t necessarily realise that they are vegetarian,” says Kinokuniya’s Byfield. 

Lou Johnson, publishing director at Murdoch Books (which has released Cornersmith’s Salad and Pickles book, as well as meat-free titles such as Vegetarian by Alice Hart and Ross Dobson’s Fired Up: Vegetarian) doesn’t think there’s a conspiracy theory about vego cookbooks “hiding” their vegetarian status. “I think that the two types of books serve different purposes and sometimes different markets. Some are fairly straightforward recipe books, whereas others are more author or experience-led.”

Being upfront about your book’s lack of meaty recipes doesn’t necessarily hold back your book sales, by the way. The Smith & Daughters cookbook – by the Melbourne restaurant’s owners Mo Wyse and Shannon Martinez – has a massive “Eat Vegan” sign on the front cover. At one point, the book was outselling Jamie Oliver and the title’s popularity has led to a follow-up release that’ll be out by the year’s end.

“People have become more interested in vegetarianism and veganism as a response to health or environmental concerns, or both, and the statistics are pretty clear that this is a pretty rapidly growing audience and increasingly mainstream,” says Lou Johnson from Murdoch Books. She predicts that the surging interest in vego cookbooks will continue.

But McKinnon still won’t explicitly put the label on her work.

“I can't imagine ever writing a book with the word 'vegetarian' on the cover! My next book, Family (out later this year) is also story-driven, celebrating the home as the inspiration for cooking. The book is deeply personal, and features vegetarian interpretations of the dishes I grew up eating, along with vegetarian recipes that (hopefully) the whole family will want to eat. I believe the experience of eating together at the table is so special, and this is heightened if everyone at the table is actually eating the same thing. These recipes were created to be family-friendly, kid-friendly, carnivore-friendly, fussy-eater-friendly, everyone-friendly. This book heartily fulfils my ethos that food, vegetarian or not, should be inclusive.”  


Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @leetranlam and Instagram @leetranlam.

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